Bellevue resident Brien Wygle honored for first flight of 737

May 9, 2017

Bellevue resident Brien Wygle honored for first flight of 737

Brien Wygle stands in his office at the Bellettini, a Bellevue retirement community. He was a pilot in World War Two, then a test pilot for Boeing and a hydroplane pilot for many years. Ryan Murray/staff photo

Brien Wygle has lived a life of adrenaline.

Now at 92, he can look back on a life of firsts and milestones.  Wygle was honored last month at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, 50 years after he test piloted the first ever flight of the Boeing 737. On April 9, 1967, Wygle took off from Boeing Field (now King County International Airport) and landed several hours later at Paine Field in Everett.

“That first flight went really well,” he said. “It was in subsequent flights we discovered a lot of problems.”

Last month Wygle moved to the Bellettini, an assisted living-home in Bellevue, after decades on his own property abutting Lake Washington.Born in Seattle in 1924 to a Canadian father and English mother, Wygle’s family moved to Canada when he was just 3-years-old. When he was 18, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force.

“I flew the C-47, it was a cargo plane,” he said. “I flew in England and then was sent to Burma for a tour there.”

While on the Indian subcontinent, Wygle flew low and into small arms fire to drop rations to beleaguered troops. He flew “the Hump” route, an infamous airlift route from India to China over the eastern edge of the Himalayas to supply soldiers attempting to take back Burma (now Myanmar) from invading Imperial Japanese forces.

“I dropped paratroops and a lot of supplies, including fuel, food, cigarettes and gin,” he said. “I dropped a lot, and most of it was only 2/3rds full so it didn’t explode on impact with the ground. I was able to land on little airstrips they had resurrected from the jungle.”

After victory, Wygle stayed in the Royal Canadian Air Force for a year, before heading to the University of British Columbia to earn a degree in mechanical engineering with an aeronautical background.

Wygle joined the Air Force Reserve and a fighter squadron in Vancouver, also flying one summer for a small regional airline. After his schooling, Boeing hired him for its now-defunct Wichita, Kansas location in 1951.

He was soon sent to test-pilot school, flying the B-47 and B-52 under high-stress environments. He was lead test pilot for the 737 and co-pilot on the test flight for the 747.

When not working at Boeing, Wygle picked up an unusual hobby. He became a record-setting hydroplane pilot. He tells the story of Stan Sayres bringing hydroplanes to Seattle after winning the Gold Cup in Detroit in 1950.

“Seattle didn’t have major sports at the time, the population was much lower,” he said. “People would flock to the water to watch the races.” He piloted the Thriftway 2 hydroplane for three years, setting a record for a race. He even wrecked one time.

“It was pretty bumpy, and you’re driving at incredibly fast speeds,” Wygle said. “My rudder broke off once. I was doing about 160 mph at the time. My boat did a 360 at high speed.”

He said it was sad that people didn’t seem to watch the hydroplane races much anymore, but understands all the other draws in Seattle can take away some of the novelty.

Wygle, a longtime board member of the Museum of Flight, was honored at a “standing-room only” event at the museum for his contributions to aviation. Original 737 engineers Bob Bogash and Peter Morton were also honored in front of the very same 737 which Wygle flew that April day 50 years ago.

“We had a big group there, the event went very well,” he said. Wygle became Boeing’s director of flight tests in 1970, just in time for the company’s most troubled period.

“We finished work on the 747 at enormous cost overruns,” he said. “The company was near bankruptcy. Bill Allen [former Boeing CEO and board chairman] told us that it doesn’t matter what we need, this company cannot survive unless we cut costs.” Wygle oversaw around 1,000 employees in the test flight division. After the dust settled, that number went down to 350.

He survived and saw the company back to a strong position, retiring at 65 in January 1990.

But his infatuation with aviation didn’t end there. He and several friends build their own airplane and flew it until Wygle was 84. He spent retirement years with his late wife Norma tutoring at Renton Technical School, helping G.E.D. candidates get their diplomas.

“I just felt I should be doing something, and I loved to help young people,” he said.

Wygle has four daughters who all independently ended up in Sun Valley, Idaho.